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Research

Michelle Rowland

[Michelle Rowland]

If corporations can have legal personhood, why can’t they also have a religion?

Spirituality is a concept that refers to how we relate to our place within the universe; our meaning and purpose in life. At the corporate level, companies may adopt policies and practices that nourish spirituality, which may have direct consequences for both employees and customers of that company in terms of engagement, employee satisfaction, and even profitability. Michelle Rowland is a fourth year student in the Queen’s School of Religion who has studied the role of spirituality and religion in business as part of her Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowship.

Rowland started her undergraduate training in the Department of Global Development Studies, and became interested in cultural differences between people. However, while she was in her classes, she found herself being drawn to the study of religion. For more than three quarters of the world’s population, religion forms an important part of their lives, and can have important consequences on their perspectives and attitudes. Her interest was piqued in a third year course titled “Religion and Business Ethics.” In this course, Dr. Richard Ascough (School of Religion), her current supervisor, asked the class, “If corporations can have legal personhood, why can’t they also have a religion?” Rowland was hooked, and decided she wanted to further explore the role that religion and spirituality play in the workplace.

One issue Rowland thinks about is how the negative side of religion tends to get a lot of publicity – reflected in conversations with her friends and family when she describes her work. “Recently, Hobby Lobby [a retail chain of craft stores] was in the news,” Rowland says, “as the company didn’t want to pay for birth control for its employees because it was against the company’s religion.” She describes how this negativity has become synonymous with workplace religion, and so the topic of religion in the workplace has become almost taboo. This is further exacerbated by how much current business research is focused on the 2008 recession – research theorizing that the lack of morals among business leaders, and their pursuit of greater and greater profit margins, led to mass layoffs and the market crash. The research has focused on whether a spiritual connection for executive employees would have helped direct and guide companies, and whether this may have mitigated some of the negative effects of the crash on mid- and low-level employees.

By contrast, Rowland describes how religion and spirituality can also be a force for good in the world. She speaks of the example of Southwest Airlines. “Southwest follows the policy of ‘servant leadership,’ where everyone is considered equal, and everyone ‘serves’ everyone else, including co-workers and customers,” she explains. “Servant leadership” is an ancient philosophy, and is one that forms a core tenet of many major religions. However, the spiritual nature of this philosophy isn’t mentioned in their mission statement, which Rowland finds odd, given the spiritual history of the concept.

In a final example, Rowland describes a recent trip she took to the United Nations headquarters in New York City. While there, she noticed the presence of a meditation room adorned with quotes about the health benefits of meditation. However, there was no mention of the spiritual benefits, an issue Rowland found surprising. The lack of open spirituality in the workplace can have consequences for a person’s spiritual health, and in turn, their productivity and engagement at work. Being unable to express both their secular and spiritual selves can leave people feeling unable to bring their “full selves” to work. As a result, work is just a place to earn money, but not a place where individuals feel they can really contribute to society. She elaborates: “As a result of this divide, employees cannot engage fully with their workplace.” This is an issue that becomes more difficult for those with clear religious symbols such as yarmulkes, hijabs, turbans, or crosses.

Following graduation in 2016, Rowland next wants to pursue a degree in urban planning. With her background in religious studies, and her interest in the well-being of people, Rowland hopes to further create environments where we can maximise our human potential and embrace both our spiritual and secular selves.

Atif Kukaswadia
(e)Affect Issue 8 Fall/Winter 2015